While Nigerians wait for closure on the $15 million arms money seized by South African prosecutors, authorities in the two countries appear to have agreed on an unholy barter to exchange bodies of South Africans who died in the Synagogue Church collapse in Nigeria, for South African-made arms needed by Nigeria to fight Boko Haram, The Mail and Guardian, one of South Africa’s most respected newspapers, has reported.
South Africa confiscated the money from arms brokers who travelled there to procure arms for the Nigerian military.
Mail and Guardian said it saw two letters written by Jeff Radebe, the South African special envoy in charge of facilitating the repatriation of the bodies, to JP “Torie” Pretorius, of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations, also known as the Hawks, and Dumisani Dladla, head of South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee, NCACC, secretariat, seeking to assist the Nigerian government to get the weapons, despite two court orders freezing the money and continued probe into the dubious deals by investigators.
On November 16, with the supervision of Mr. Radebe, 74 bodies were repatriated to South Africa following the September collapse of the Synagogue Church in Lagos, Nigeria.
Majority of the dead were South Africans who visited the church hoping to receive miracles from the founder, T. B. Joshua.
Many in South Africa hailed Mr. Radebe as a hero for being able to secure the release of the bodies.
But the news that he might have entered into a sinister swap agreement with Nigerian officials to accelerate the return of the bodies has cast a pall over that heroic persona.
The South African government has dismissed the Mail and Guardian’s account as an attempt to “discredit the collaborative efforts of the South African and Nigerian governments to repatriate the bodies of South Africans that died in Nigeria”.
But the paper, in a follow-up report, said it stood by its findings, as they were backed by documents and confirmations from government officials.
“It includes correspondence from Minister Radebe to the Hawks and internal emails from senior government officials,” Mail and Guardian editor, Angela Quintal, said. “The email trail clearly shows that these officials were discussing the minister’s request that the investigation be halted and that they were concerned about this.”
In the letters Mail and Guardian quoted, Mr. Radebe, who is also the Chairman of NCACC and a minister in the South African presidency, tried hard to whitewash the deals as legitimate.
“(It) was, in fact, a legitimate requirement from the government of Nigeria,” he was quoted to have written. “Although the required administrative processes were not adhered to at the time, the government of South Africa deems it a bona fide error.”
He told Mr. Dladla to “laise” with Mr. Pretorius to “obtain all relevant information in order to assist the parties involved to apply for the necessary authorisations in compliance with the National Conventional Arms Control Amendment Act (no 73 of 2008);” adding that “Upon receipt of the required permit applications, the national conventional arms control committee will favourably consider ex-post facto approval thereof.”
Though Mr. Radebe claimed that the attempt to help Nigeria clean up the arms deal was collectively agreed at an NCACC meeting, other members of the committee are distancing themselves from the agreement.
Also, while he claimed, through his spokesperson, that the committee agreed to help Nigeria legitimise the deals at its October 30 meeting, the letter seen by Mail and Guardian was dated October 6, three weeks before the meeting was held, the newspaper said.
Mr. Radebe also said that the repatriation of the bodies lay under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Lagos State government and “had no relation to the arms matter.”
He said he drafted the letters to Hawks and the directorate for conventional arms control “after consultation with the Federal Republic of Nigeria”.
Mail and Guardian quoted a cabinet minister, who is also a member of the arms committee, as saying that Mr. Radebe singlehandedly wrote the letter without consulting other committee members. He said Mr. Radebe merely sought their approval after the letter had been delivered.
“Jeff cut this deal all by himself. He wanted to claim credit for cracking this matter [securing the return of bodies,” said the government official. “His colleagues who serve on the arms committee are distancing themselves from the whole thing. They are refusing to back him on this one. If we allow Nigeria to get away with this, it means any country can come and do the same.”
Mr. Radebe appeared to be completely isolated on the matter as prosecutors said they are not relenting in their effort at getting to the bottom of the matter. Paul Ramaloko, a captain with the Hawks said his organisation is forging ahead with its investigation and that he knew nothing about the attempt of Mr. Radebe to withdraw the charges.
Mail and Guardian said Mr. Radebe’s letters are being discussed within the country’s diplomatic circles with officials wondering what to do with it.
An email the newspaper claimed it saw read: “What concerns the NCAI [National Arms Control Inspectorate] about this case is that there are no documents … end-user certificate, or otherwise … from the Nigerian government that they had ordered the arms and ammunition. Thus far, there is no proof that has been provided that the Nigerian government ordered these goods or is in any way involved in this deal.”
The officials who wrote the email added that, having bought arms from South Africa before, “the responsible officials in that country understand the administrative and legal process that South Africa requires”.
Nigeria’s National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, could not be reached for comments. His spokesperson, Adebisi Adekunle, could not also be contacted as calls to his telephone were unsuccessful.
A spokesperson to President Goodluck Jonathan, Reuben Abati, did not also respond to calls to his phones.